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Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty (67) celebrates with teammates Josh Gorges, left, Alexei Emelin, Brendan Gallagher (11) and David Desharnais (51) after scoring against the Pittsburgh Penguins during second period NHL action in Montreal, Saturday, November 23, 2013. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty (67) celebrates with teammates Josh Gorges, left, Alexei Emelin, Brendan Gallagher (11) and David Desharnais (51) after scoring against the Pittsburgh Penguins during second period NHL action in Montreal, Saturday, November 23, 2013. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Habs hold Crosby in check in win over Penguins Add to ...

There were angry words, and post-whistle headlocks and the occasional stick in the yap – all of it calculated, much of it likely even pre-meditated.

Or so one is led to believe upon hearing Montreal Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec, who got far enough up the nose of the world’s best hockey player that Sidney Crosby started yelling at him in the faceoff circle after the Czech centre put the Habs up 3-0.

“That’s his weakness. Everybody knows that,” Plekanec said after the game, a 3-2 Habs win. “When you get him to play that way, when (Crosby) is running around, slashing guys, crosschecking guys, jumping guys from behind, you know he’s off his game.”

And what does Crosby have to say about his latest encounter with Plekanec (who owned him in the faceoff circle, going 16-5 overall on the night), Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, who were charged with keeping the Pens captain under wraps?

“There’s always kind of those match-ups within the game, and I thought we generated some really good chances, that’s hockey sometimes. It’s frustrating, you want to put those chances in when you get them, but I thought for the most part we controlled the play when we were out there,” he said.

Asked if Plekanec is a frustrating opponent, he said: “I think when you’re losing and, you know, he’s following you all over the ice, I mean, yeah, you know he’s there. He’s a little guy who plays hard, and isn’t afraid to get his stick up or do those things. Those are things you’ve got to fight through, I think in every game you’re always looking at those little battles within the game, whether it’s a defenceman or a centreman you’re squared up against. You’ve got to find ways, the opportunities were there and we didn’t capitalize.”

Well, that should make for some interesting encounters when the teams next meet in Pittsburgh on Jan. 22.

Although Plekanec won’t be the one talking, or so he says.
“I didn’t say anything, he was talking all the time. I was just listening. I’m a good listener,” he said.

The other sub-plot on this night, the match-up between would-be Team Canada defencemen Subban and Kris Letang was also a decisive Montreal victory.

Subban stalked Crosby all over the defensive zone – though coach Michel Therrien matched Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin and Plekanec’s group against Crosby in the first period, he switched defensive pairings after Pittsburgh’s top line produced a raft of scoring chances – and gave him little time and no space in which to work.

“(Subban) is really mobile offensively, he’s good at moving the puck and making that first move to beat the guy that’s forechecking, he’s strong down low, I think he’s a guy who likes those match-ups and competes hard. I haven’t followed him that much, but he’s definitely being talked about for Team Canada, and deservedly so,” said Crosby.

Letang, meanwhile, was on the ice for two Habs goals, both of them scored by Max Pacioretty; the first was hardly his fault, but he was out-muscled and out-raced on the second.

Though he was credited with two shots and two blocked shots, Letang didn’t offer anything close to what the allegedly defensively suspect Subban did – the 24-year-old Subban was even on the ice for most of the final two minutes with the Habs clinging to a one-goal lead.

“Listen, he’s a great player," Subban said of his match-up with Crosby. "You definitely want to play him hard out there. As for Pleky and him, I don’t know what they’re saying or anything like that, when I’m out there I’m just trying to do my job."

Coach Michel Therrien paid his mercurial young blue-liner a public compliment afterward, saying that since a 4-1 loss in Colorado where Subban’s turnover led to the back-breaking goal “he has done an excellent job.”

So, to recap, the Canadiens, stumbling along at .500 when the week began, have now won three in a row and are 5-1-1 in their last seven.

Not just any three wins either; first they trounced the Minnesota Wild – then the NHL’s hottest team – then held the three most dangerous players in the league at bay in their last two games.

“I think it’s just what we needed, when you’re playing against world class players like Ovechkin and Crosby, you want to elevate your game, and I think we’ve done a good job of holding each other accountable in the dressing room. I think these are the fun games, these are the games you get up for," Subban said.

True, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored two goals, Pittsburgh Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin chalked up a pair of assists and Crosby was typically relentless, but they don’t give points for threatening.

The standings also don’t reflect a team holding on for dear life, as the Habs did in beating Washington and Pittsburgh by matching 3-2 scores (after leading both games 3-0).

Pacioretty opened the scoring two minutes into the second period when rookie defenceman Olli Maatta threw an ill-advised pass up the middle that the big Montreal winger intercepted before taking a few strides and whipping a fierce shot off the post and past Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Quebec-born goaltender seldom seems at home in the Bell Centre, and the Habs doubled their lead early in the third when Subban held off a checker, made a one-handed feed to Andrei Markov, whose astute pass was rifled past a static Fleury by Plekanec.

It was the kind of shot he has made a habit of saving.

That goal clearly irked Crosby, who directed a lengthy tirade at his Czech counterpart on the subsequent faceoff – he was waved out of the circle for his trouble.

Moments later, Pacioretty waltzed around Letang and surprised Fleury with a quick shot to score his fifth goal of the week – again it was of the type Fleury generally stops.

In the space of 1:25, the Habs had a 3-0 lead.

The Pens clawed a goal back on the power-play – Brian Gionta having been caught hooking Pascal Dupuis in front of the net – when James Neal ripped an unstoppable one-timer into the top corner over Carey Price’s glove.

They narrowed the gap to 3-2 when Neal took another gorgeous feed from Evgeni Malkin and slid it around Price.

By then, the Habs were in survival mode, and for the second straight night they white-knuckled it until the end, when Neal hooked Markov with Fleury already on the bench.

Crosby fired the puck in frustration, it clunked off Price’s skate and into the net. It also earned him a stern talking-to from the Habs’ Travis Moen.

It would be the closest Crosby came to scoring.

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